Foundations Can – and Should – Be Leaders in Creating Good Public Policy, Experts Say

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Correspondent

Whether it’s local, state or federal, public policy has a tremendous impact on communities and how and what services are provided to deal with such things as poverty, food programs, housing and medical care.

The question for foundation leaders is how best to develop a relationship with elected and appointed officials, government bureaucrats and other policymakers to achieve the social, civic and monetary impact desired, according to three experts on the public policy/philanthropic dynamic.

A panel discussion entitled: “The Effects of Public Policy on Philanthropy” at the 42nd annual conference of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) took a deep dive into this far-reaching and sometimes puzzling area.

The panel included: Robin Ferriby, vice president-philanthropic services, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan; Jeffrey Padden, president, Public Policy Associates; and Erin Skene-Pratt, director, PolicyWorks for Philanthropy, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

Ferriby shared that one of the most important things to remember is that a governmental representative – regardless of position or power – is there to serve the needs of his/her constituents and, more importantly, are answerable to them.

No matter what you are trying to do or achieve when dealing with the government, remember in that relationship that representative is yours. You are in their district. They have to be responsive to those they serve if they wish to remain in that position. That is your leverage.”

Foundations are in a unique position to be “the local face” of a community, bringing its needs to the forefront and advocating for positive social change or governmental dollars to create and/or improve needed services for those who reside, work and socialize there, noted Ferriby.

Citing the adage that there is power in numbers, he noted foundations - by virtue of their ability to hold community forums, seek out citizen input, present alternative possibilities and take a lead role in advocating for positive social change – are in a position to be – and be viewed as – a powerful community voice that that government must respond to.

“Relationships are the key to making things work, especially in the area of public policy” he added.

“You can do things in a cooperative manner with everybody and have the resources behind you, but to take that next step you need that (government policymaker/elected official) to recognize you as a leader among their constituency. That is when they listen; that is when they take action on your behalf.”

Padden said philanthropy needs to increase its efforts to influence public policy if it wants to make substantive and sustainable changes on issues impacting their communities.

The panelists also noted the reluctance of some foundations to finance advocacy groups or efforts.

“The law is clear on what a foundation is legally able to do and not do when it comes to (governmental) advocacy…and more can be done,” said Padden, adding that it is not a bad thing to be less conflict-adverse when it comes to improving society.

Also, the influence of wealth is a great tool foundations can use to open up doors of government so the important messages, change proposals can be heard, all panelists agreed.

“You have the power of sometimes very wealthy people serving on your boards or residing in your communities who may already have established relationships with government officials and policymakers,” said Ferriby.

“This is an important resource that should be tapped and utilized,” shared Padden.

Skene-Pratt also advised foundation leaders and staff to keep telling and sharing their stories of success – and failures – with their communities and representatives.

“Communicate effectively…keep the message simple…don’t be afraid of sharing things that haven’t worked. That’s how everyone learns,” she said.

“Foundations are already doing good work,” noted Padden. “But we can all do better and be more effective, especially when it comes to ensuring good public policy for those we all serve, our communities!”

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